There’s a curious interplay between two of today’s readings: the one from 1 Kings, involving Elijah and Elisha; and the one from the Gospel, the one involving Jesus and his disciples.
Now—scraping off our Old Testament rust here—recall that Elijah was a prophet of the Most High. And he was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab.
Remember King Ahab? 1 Kings (21:25) sums up Ahab’s reign thusly: “Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel.” Ahab was a terrible king in God’s sight. And Elijah had been called by God to serve as a prophetic voice against this terrible king Ahab.
But what made Ahab so bad was, as the scriptures observe, his wife, Jezebel. Remember her? She was maybe the first person ever in the history of the world to claim Eminent Domain.
The story goes like this. There was a man named Naboth who owned a small vineyard. This vineyard was good, productive, and verdant. And it happened to be right next door to Ahab’s palace.
So Ahab approaches Naboth one day and says, “Hey, Naboth, I really like your vineyard. It’s so green! And the grapes look delicious!”
“Yeah?” Naboth answers, warily enough, and says, “I like it too, as a matter of fact. It’s been in my family for many a generation.”
“Well,” continues Ahab, clearing his throat, “um, er, well, um, so what it comes down to is, well, um, I want your vineyard for my own garden. Sell it to me. I’m your king, after all. I’ll gladly pay you what it’s worth.”
And Naboth says, “But it’s not for sale. For crying out loud, it’s my ancestral inheritance!” And he walks away, turning his back on the king.
So Ahab goes home sullen and vexed.
And there, at home, sullen and vexed, Ahab grabs a glass of wine or whatever and sits down to brood.
And his wife Jezebel enters.
Now, to put it in context, old Israel was a patriarchal society. Ahab’s the man. He’s in charge. He also happens to be the king.
So, have you ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding? There’s a scene in this movie when the mother of the bride-to-be explains to her daughter how things really work. “The husband is the head,” she says, “this is true. But the wife—she’s the neck! And the neck can turn the head any way she wants to!”
So Jezebel enters the room and sees her husband Ahab the king, the head of Israel, sitting there brooding, and she says, “What’s eating at you?”
And he explains the whole episode with Naboth and his verdant, productive vineyard; how he asked Naboth for it; and how Naboth said no.
And the neck Jezebel turns the head Ahab around. “What!” she exclaims, “Aren’t you the king of all Israel? I’ll go get that vineyard and give it to you myself!”
So she throws Naboth a birthday party. But right during the middle of the festivities, two thugs—whom Jezebel had hired, by the way—stand up and loudly and falsely accuse Naboth of some crime worthy of death. And the scheme works. Without fair trail of any kind a crowd of people grabs Naboth, drags him away from his own party, and stones him to death.
And later that night Jezebel comes home to tell her beloved husband, “Guess what, Ahab, dear?” And she hands Ahab the keys to Naboth’s vineyard and toasts her Eminent Domain victory.
By the way, Jezebel also convinced Ahab to employ several hundred priests of the Phoenician god Baal. Yeah! The state religion at the time was not Judaism!
Anyway, all this meant that Elijah had a very difficult job before him, one that required focus; or, to use a euphemism from the KJV, one that required him to set his face like flint.
Even so, when it comes time for him to pass on his mantle to a disciple, we read that he allows this disciple, Elisha, to tie up some loose ends first.
God tells the prophet Elijah, “Go and anoint Elisha as a prophet, to continue the ministry that you have begun against Jezebel and Ahab and their false god Baal and all those false priests.”
So Elijah goes and finds Elisha and explains.
Then Elisha answers, “Okay, but first let me go and kiss my mother and my father goodbye, and then I will follow you.”
And Elijah is like, “Sure, seems reasonable to me.”
But then we come to the Gospel. And we read:
As they were going along the road, someone said to [Jesus], “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
And I’m left saying, “Wait a minute!”
Elijah just found Elisha plowing a field. His hand was on the plow, in fact! But before he commits to following his new leader, he looks back—even if but for only a short time—to kiss his mom and dad goodbye. So, Elijah has no problem letting his disciple, Elisha, say farewell to those at his home.
But Jesus doesn’t allow it. “No one,” he says, “who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” But wasn’t Elisha—of all people!—fit for the kingdom of God? Yet his hand was to the plow. Literally!
What is Jesus getting at?
Well, maybe if we go back and look a little more at the Elijah story we’ll begin to answer this question: what is Jesus getting at?
Before Elijah ever approached Elisha; before Elijah had received word from God to pass on his ministry to a disciple; and, in fact, before Jezebel had enacted her version of Eminent Domain on that poor soul Naboth, Elijah took on those several hundred priests whom had been hired by Ahab and Jezebel, in a fiery display of God’s absolute superiority.
Do you remember this story from Sunday school?
It was four hundred against one, bad odds by any stretch. Except Elijah boldly took them all on, even mocking their god in front of them all.
“Where is your god now?” he taunted. “Oh, perhaps he’s sleeping.”
So the four hundred priests of Baal danced and wailed and wept and cut themselves, all to get their god’s attention. But nothing worked! Their god Baal never came to bail them out.
So, “What?” Elijah mocks. “Well, where is he? Maybe he’s preoccupied with some other matter. Maybe he’s using the bathroom.”
Yeah! That’s part of the story. Did your Sunday school teacher include that part?
Then, with one word, Elijah calls down fire from heaven—which consumes the water-logged sacrifice in one fell swoop, and all four hundred of the opposing priests of Baal—whom Ahab and Jezebel had hired; and which immediately put Elijah on the top of the list of Israel’s Most Wanted!
And now we understand today’s Gospel a little more clearly.
Jesus set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem. This was his mission, how he would bring about salvation to the world. He had to do it, and he knew it. Like Elijah, he had received word from God the Father.
So, on his way to fulfilling his mission in Jerusalem, Jesus sends some disciples ahead of him, in search of hospitality, into a village of Samaritans. But, because his face was set towards Jerusalem, the Samaritans refuse.
And here we can so easily picture James and John, can’t we? After all, we get righteously angry too.
“What?” they exclaim. “How dare they refuse you! I mean, come on! Don’t they realize who you are? You’re Jesus!
“Oh, but that’s right. They are Samaritans. They don’t worship the same God as we do. They’re infidels! Well, then, just give us the word, Jesus. We’ll call fire from heaven down upon them, just like Elijah called fire from heaven on those accursed false priests!”
(Sigh!) Had James and John forgotten that so recently—earlier in this same chapter of Luke, in fact—Jesus told them merely to wipe the dust off their sandals and walk away when rejected?
Have we forgotten this?
Beloved, fellow followers of Christ, we live in crazy times. I don’t have to mention even the events from this week to demonstrate just how frightening our times are. Terrorism, racism, and vigilante violence are seeming to spread across the globe like some new black plague. No doubt a significant motivator of the so-called Brexit is fear; and, more particularly, fear of foreigners, xenophobia.
We fear them: those who aren’t like us, those we don’t understand. We fear those whose skin color is a different shade from ours. We fear those whose sexual orientations or gender identities don’t align with our perspectives. And, maybe most of all, we fear those who worship a different god from ours.
So, what then? Are we to call fire from heaven down upon them?
Jesus came and showed a new way. When others reject us, we don’t call fire down from heaven. That’s an old plow, one that should be abandoned altogether in an old world, in Elijah’s world.
When others reject us, instead, we take the high road. We turn the other cheek. We wipe off the dust.
Do not be afraid, Jesus said. Rather, love. This is the new way. This is Christ’s way. This is the new plow to which we’ve put our hand.
For the sake of God and humanity, don’t look back.